Scoping & Running Projects

Some weeks ago, I asked people from my newsletter who are on my Slack channel what they wanted to learn more about. One of the common requests I kept getting was to learn more about how I work. Previously I described my process from a design perspective, but this week I wanted to give you a more detailed peek into how I scope and plan my projects.

To give new readers some background and context, I’ve been freelancing for more than 10 years, so it’s fair to say I’ve completed at least 100 projects. During that decade, you’d assume my design skills would grow the most, but instead I found my project management skills developed more significantly. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how talented a designer you are, if you can’t manage and run a project, you won’t be successful. You need to have good planning and research skills!

Vetting clients and the scope

Vetting clients is difficult, but it’s definitely something that you’ll improve over time. In the beginning of your career, it’s common to be afraid of turning projects down. I still occasionally feel this, but I’ve become far better at it - usually because my gut feeling tells me to! And whenever I’ve gone against my gut feeling and committed to the projects anyway, they’ve always ended in disaster - usually in the form of late or missing payments.

Designers are often told that asking ‘Why’ a lot is the key to great solutions. But for some reason, most designers fail to ask. Last summer when I worked on Toast, they initially came to SuperFriendly wanting a media hub. But because Dan runs his business like a professional, he didn’t go ahead and quote them for that right away. Instead, he opted for curiosity and asked, “Cool, why do you want that?” Turns out, it wasn’t actually what they needed. By choosing to be curious and ask ‘Why’, we were able to deliver something that provided much more value and solved their problem.

Once I’ve made sure I understand the problem and I believe that I’ll be able to do great work together with the client, I begin scoping the work. In my early days, I usually scoped work by thinking of something I’ve previously done, how long that took, and then charged the client roughly the same. At that time I didn’t really track hours for projects, so I had no idea of knowing which projects were financially beneficial. I fixed that pretty quickly when I began having issues valuing my projects. Lesson learned.

Scoping is about appropriately setting expectations for yourself, your team, and your clients and managers. It’s a rare skill that separates the amateurs from the professionals. Which one are you?How to scope work

Once the project is scoped, I turn to my contract template and write down the project brief along with my terms: budget, deadlines, and deliverables. Basically what gets done and when.

The tools I use

I send a contract to my client through DocuSign and inform them that I won’t be able to reserve the time for the project until the contract is signed. Once they sign it, I set up the new project in Harvest with the budget.

For keeping track of things I primarily use a mix of Notion and Things.

I set up a new template in Notion with a basic Trello-board (Backlog for ideas, Doing for current activities, In Review, and Done). Each activity has its own page with additional details but this overview makes for a good homepage for the project and all its important information.

In Things, I keep track of daily stuff I need to get done. These are usually more practical things like Design landing page or Review filters. For production heavy projects, I do most of my project management through Things!

Plan, and then revise

I initially said that project management and having a defined plan is key to any successful project. And while I do think that is true, here’s the flip side of that coin. Most projects won’t end up like you planned them. Things happen (Hello COVID-19) that turn your planning upside down and force you to adapt your plan to the new scenario. That’s ok though! The important thing is not to get it right the very first time… the important thing is to have something to start from!


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